A cur, the delta, cultists, good women


In Ethan Black's splendid Dead for Life (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $24), an innocent New York cop is pilloried for dereliction of duty. A raging, resourceful, persistent cur -- determined to liquidate his prey for no evident reason -- claims that responsibility for his murders lies with Det. Conrad Voort. To save his honor and his career, Voort must discover the killer's motivation and foil his plans. Children, politicians, contractors, police and school bigwigs, friends, foes, Romans, countrymen mill around trying to help, hinder or simply advance their own interests. Great writing. Great suspense. Great action. Wonderful reading.

After Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon and lead pencils, James Lee Burke is God's great gift to social historians -- especially historians of that select Wonderland called Louisiana, a place full of violent, driven, misguided, intrusive corruption; drive-through daiquiri stores; blues and swamp pop; grunge; greasers; lowlifes who don't pull their punches; and tourists who (says Burke) come to see a world that no longer exists.

Yet bits and pieces of that world soldier on in Burke's pages, along the bayous, in the elysian fields of the Big Easy, in Angola Penitentiary and its rental convict slave labor, in the songs of Leadbelly and of Bessie Smith, in people's memories and in their habits. You never know when an unexpected holdover of the old regime will belch out with shocking vigor.

It does so all over Burke's Last Car to Elysian Fields (Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $24.95), which is about entrepreneurs and horse breeders, murder, fishing, depression, dark rememberings, slaughterous lawmen, lawless porn producers and the junkies, sluts and perverts panting to strip before the cameras as a first step to a brilliant film career.

It's also about Dave Robicheaux, Burke's resilient cop, and his sidekick Clete, their friends, their foes, their blunders through the late-summer rains of New Iberia and New Orleans, the crimes and sordid secrets that they scarce conceal and Dave's angry pain over the loss of Bootsie, his beloved wife.

Dave and Clete are good guys lost in a crowd of dubious characters and worse, a confusing crush relieved only by the ministrations of Dave's cat, Snuggs, and a three-footed raccoon named Tripod. But Snuggs doesn't help much, and Tripod even less, as the pals try to trail those responsible for murders past and lawlessness present. Their blunders don't help either. Nor does Dave's propensity for stirring up trouble and following false trails.

But action never flags, suspense never ebbs, Dave never gives in to the insistent call of the Jim Beam he has forsworn. He simply wonders whether God is saddened by the madness of the children creation left on Earth -- not considering that if God there be, and if she cares, the madness that whirls about us might just be one of her whims.

Change of setting, change of tone. In a small town in southeast England, two teen-agers (The Babes in the Wood -- Crown, 336 pages, $25) and their sitter disappear while their parents are on holiday, and for a long time neither distraught parents nor baffled police can tell what happened. The case proves a hard nut to crack.

Then, when the mystery begins to unravel, explanations are both extraordinary and commonplace. That's what mysteries are about: the irruption of the extraordinary into the commonplace. Ruth Rendell is a master of the genre, as long as you bear in mind that her version of it is veddy, veddy British and no worse for that.

The plot, secondary to cast and setting, unfolds at a pace that American readers may find sluggish. There is more rain than you know what to do with, and lots of tears are shed. Short on clues, long on lenity for recalcitrant suspects and witnesses, police bear their impasse staunchly. Chief Inspector Wexford and his acolytes do relatively little, while they talk a lot.

Trolling through Kingsmarkham in search of revelations, they coast through cults and cultists, floods, bickerings, scolds and scratchy marriages teetering on the brink. Nimble notions are aired and found misleading, discoveries are scant and insights are slow to surface. This leaves plenty of time for crash courses in English schoolchildren's slang (as impenetrable as our own) and English adults' hang-ups (similar to our own) about fast and fat-free foods. None of this sounds like seductive reading, but the book turns out to be hard to put down. Pick it up and you'll see.

Tess Gerritsen's The Sinner (Ballantine Books, 352 pages, $24.95) swings purposefully between carnage and cover-up far away and their murderous fallout nearer home, between sweltering Indian heat and icy New England winter. In a small convent outside Boston, two nuns are savagely assaulted. Soon another woman suffers the same fate before she is frightfully mutilated.

As the Boston medical examiner, Maura Isles, works side by side with Jane Rizzoli, the lead detective on the case, unexpected discoveries horrify them further and bedevil an investigation that lurches through Catholic quagmires, corporate crimes and incest and other assaults. Each woman is also plagued by her nagging affections and the distractions and indecisions these inflict without seeming to slow down the action that drives smartly from one crisis to the next.

Gerritsen left medical practice to take up writing, and The Sinner, like her previous books, abounds in medical scenes and details. Above all, though, the narrative is about its linchpins, Rizzoli and Isles, each burdened by a panoply of sentiment and emotion. Beside them, the men, condemned to walk-on parts, remain one-dimensional, while the women are fully developed personally and professionally. That only makes a spry book more interesting for male readers here exposed to uncharted sensibilities -- and for women too, offered a tale told from their perspectives. Or from some of them.

Eugen Weber is a history professor at the University of California in Los Angeles and believes all historical research is rooted in clarifying mysteries. He recently wrote Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages and reviews books for the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times and Times Literary Supplement. This review, in longer form, appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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